One of my favourite state parks in the USA is Niagara Falls State Park, a mere four hours away on the border between the US and Canada. If you took a poll of the denizens of the US, a large number of people would express enthusiasm when asked about Niagara Falls. Who doesn’t enjoy taking a scenic and thrilling boat ride in the Niagara River Gorge with the spray from the waterfalls soaking you thoroughly? I know I do, even if it means wearing a shapeless blue plastic sheet with a hood! But as the years pass and now, after taking my tenth trip to the falls, I realize that my love for this park extends beyond the touristy pleasures. Here are some interesting facts I have learned about Niagara Falls, and one singularly meaningful experience that I had when I visited the falls this Thursday (all facts were mentioned by signage and tour guides at Niagara Falls State Park).

Panoramic view of the three falls. Photo Credits: Google Images. 
  1. Niagara Falls is not just one massive waterfall, it’s three: American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Canadian Falls. The Bridal Veil Falls are the centerpiece of the Cave of the Winds attraction at the park and a small piece of land called Luna Island separates these falls from the American Falls.
  2. The Niagara River, lifeblood of the Falls, flows from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and is a remnant of the last Ice Age.
  3. Niagara Falls is the second largest waterfall in the world, after Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
  4. The word “Niagara” is derived from an Iroquois Indian word “Onguiaahra,” which means “the strait.”
  5. 20 percent of the world’s freshwater lies in the 5 Great Lakes, and outflow from these lakes flows over Niagara Falls!
Niagara Falls in peak summer tourist season. Photo by P. Ranganathan

This June, my family took a trip up to the Falls to witness their magic and power once again. It really never gets old, no matter how often we visit. I have seen the Falls roaring in spring fury as melting ice adds to the volume of water flinging itself over the edge. I have visited the Falls in the dead of winter when Bridal Veil Falls was reduced to a fourth of its peak volume and dreadlocks of ice hung down in an eerily silent curtain over the rock face. I have been drenched time and time again in the heat of summer as the Falls play with tourists darting around like ants on the Cave of the Winds boardwalks and atop the Maid of the Mist as she bobs helplessly in the gorge surrounded on three sides by frothing, fuming water. And each time, I cannot help but marvel at the timeless grace that water possesses. At the bountifulness of this precious natural resource. At its rage, its power, its depth.

This trip was the first in three years that I was able to trek down into the Niagara Gorge to witness the waterfall from below. After various incidents and subsequent maintenance closures, the Cave of the Winds was finally open again! This is one of the most popular attractions in Niagara, because it enables visitors to get up close and personal with the most delicate of the waterfalls – Bridal Veil Falls. But don’t be fooled; up close, there is nothing delicate and gentle about Bridal Veil Falls. When standing on the fragile red boardwalk at the base of the falls with water threatening to crack wood all around you, even the boldest of extreme adventure maniacs would take a moment to watch their steps.

The Cave of the Winds boardwalk at the base of Bridal Veil Falls. Photo by P. Ranganathan.

I made my way around the boardwalk, my feet squelching on the moss-covered wooden planks, water droplets raining down around me. To my left, the greeny-grey river swirled down the gorge, and to my right, the spray was so dense that I could barely look up at the water cascading over a cliff of dolostone and shale. I never had felt quite so small, so insignificant, as I did on that rickety boardwalk, entirely at the mercy of a raging river and toothed rocks.

At the top of the boardwalk is a deck reserved for those who are seeking a higher power, a more-fulfilling experience. Known popularly as “Hurricane Deck,” this section of the boardwalk allows visitors to stand directly below the force of the Bridal Veil Falls. This is the star attraction of the Cave of the Winds, and my personal haven. I climbed up the steep staircase to the deck and the force of the water struck me like, well, a hurricane. Hastily, I bowed my head to keep my contact lenses from being flushed out of my eyes. Beside me, my father clutched his spectacles to keep them secured on his face. Bridal Veil Falls thundered in front of us, shrouding me in mist, and I let myself be sucked into its mystery. The falls crashed down around me, each drop of water wickedly sharp, like a million blades striking me again and again. I winced, and then succumbed to the water’s power. After all, I had made the choice to step into its path. Of course it was stronger than me. Of course it was proud. A waterfall versus a human; was there even a point in refusing to admit how small I felt at that moment? And truly, I felt insignificant, and in that insignificance, I felt free.

It is a lesson in humility to stand beneath a cascading waterfall. To be struck on the head, the neck, the back by watery spears. To be taunted time and time again by wordless power, and to have the instinct to step back when the pain became too intense to withstand. And this is why I return time and time again to Hurricane Deck, and to the larger miracle that is Niagara Falls. To taste that power, and to be humbled, year after year. To remind myself that I am only a small speck in a far vaster natural world. To remind myself, once again, of the wondrous power of water.

On the boardwalk at the Cave of the Winds, with Bridal Veil Falls in the background. Photo by P. Ranganathan.

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